Understanding Drivers of Violent Extremism: The Case of al-Shabab and Somali Youth
Aug 23, 2012
On June 20, 2012, U.S. Representative Peter King convened a fifth hearing on the radicalization of Muslim Americans. Although the hearings covered radicalization of Muslim Americans in general, special emphasis was placed on al-Shabab’s recruitment of more than 40 young Americans.
This article provides clarity on the driving factors that attract youth to al-Shabab. It argues that identity as manipulated by ideology in the trappings of religion, as well as the perceptions of neglect, combine to drive youth to join the Somali group. This conclusion is based on an extensive review of literature on al-Shabab, including U.S. government documents, and field research in Nairobi, Kenya. The latter included focus group discussions with 15 former al-Shabab members between the ages of 19 and 27 living in Eastleigh—a predominantly Somali suburb of Nairobi. Their membership in al-Shabab ranged from six months to two years.
Due to the small sample size, the argument presented cannot be generalized to all al-Shabab members. The findings, however, offer valuable insight into the reasoning of an important subset of Somali youth in joining violent extremism. Given the porous border between Somalia and Kenya, the large presence of Somali refugee youth in Eastleigh facing dire conditions (almost identical to those in Somalia with the exception of war), and the growth of al-Shabab recruitment in Eastleigh, the voices of the interviewed youth are relevant to this debate.
The article will look at two driving factors for recruitment, examining both “push” and “pull.” Push factors are the negative social, cultural, and political features of one’s societal environment that aid in “pushing” vulnerable individuals onto the path of violent extremism. Push factors are what are commonly known as “underlying/root causes” such as poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, discrimination, and political/economical marginalization. Pull factors, on the other hand, are the positive characteristics and benefits of an extremist organization that “pull” vulnerable individuals to join. These include the group’s ideology (e.g., emphasis on changing one’s condition through violence rather than “apathetic” and “passive” democratic means), strong bonds of brotherhood and sense of belonging, reputation building, prospect of fame or glory, and other socialization benefits.
The participants unanimously stated that it was a confluence of factors that led them to join al-Shabab, as the group presented a “package” deal in its recruitment propaganda. The following provides brief explanations of the factors listed, as understood and explained by the participants.
Five of the 15 youth said that al-Shabab was a form of employment. According to them, joining al-Shabab paid well, from $50-$150 monthly, depending on the work, yet required little effort. “All one had to do was carry around a gun and patrol the streets,” explained a participant. “It was an easy job compared to other jobs such as construction work.” Therefore, for some of these youth, a significant reason for joining al-Shabab was because it enabled them to provide for themselves and their families.
Although personal poverty is not a reason for joining violent extremism, the cases of these youth show that the effects of poverty, such as idleness and low self-esteem, cannot be ignored in this discussion. The fact that many Somali youth are unemployed and rely on relatives for sustenance, either in Somalia or in the diaspora, dampens their self-worth such that when an opportunity to fend for oneself arises, they are quick to take advantage.
Fear of Victimization
Some of those interviewed feared being victimized for not joining al-Shabab. They also worried about being seen as weak by family and society at large and thus had to “man up” and join. This was especially the case for those youth who lived in al-Shabab controlled areas. If an able-bodied youth did not join, one could be suspected of supporting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Since some of them would move between al-Shabab and TFG controlled areas regularly, they had to pick a side. As one youth put it, “You have to make a choice. You are either on one side or the other.”
Some explained that the bombing of Somali towns by the mostly Ugandan and Burundian UN peacekeeping force, AMISOM, built intense hatred toward this group. The destruction of property and life was a great cause of distress. They stated that they joined al-Shabab to seek revenge as well as to “protect themselves and their families.”
Some participants mentioned they sought revenge against TFG soldiers. Their urge for revenge was due to harassment, particularly of female relatives at checkpoints. The youth who listed “revenge” described TFG soldiers as “animals” who “would touch our women inappropriately at the checkpoints. Imagine when you see this being done to your mother or your sister…it is humiliating and infuriating.”
Lack of Education
Only two participants mentioned lack of education. When asked to clarify, they stated that this entailed a lack of education in general and not religious education. According to them, they were not able to pursue different avenues in life and they did not see a bright future ahead. As a result, it was easier to join al-Shabab rather than languish in poverty with no chance to “pursue something greater.”
Reputation (hero for defending country and religion)
The participants mentioned that al-Shabab uses reputation to attract youth. An al-Shabab recruiter would first identify a group of youth who seemed to consistently socialize in or frequent a specific location. He would then approach one of the youth and offer to make him an “amir” of his own “men” if he could get three or more of his friends to also join. This was the most popular reason cited. In the words of one respondent, “Walking the city with a gun as a member of al-Shabab ensured everybody feared and respected you. Girls also liked you.” Those who joined al-Shabab, especially in towns where the group had a large presence, were seen as heroes for defending the country and the religion.
In the case of most youth, the reputation that one earns by joining al-Shabab is attractive for two main reasons. First, it delivers them from irrelevance to prominence. In a society that places great emphasis on age, the economically dependent youth command little respect and are seen as powerless. By becoming a member of al-Shabab, youth are able to gain immediate respect and access to power, thereby strengthening their sense of self-worth. Second, it strengthens a particular identity: in this case, “defender of country and religion.” This is important for two reasons. It highlights the centrality of Islam in Somalis’ sense of identity. The role of religion is especially magnified in the identity of youth for whom clan politics has brought nothing but chaos and destruction. That is why when asked whether they were Somali or Muslim first, a great majority of the respondents answered they were Muslim first. This does not necessarily indicate religious zealousness, but rather the intertwined nature of religion and nationality in their sense of identity. More importantly, though, it echoes Seth Schwartz’s argument that terrorism represents a confluence of cultural, social, and personal identity. It particularly underlines the role of a cultural identity strongly rooted in collectivism—prioritizing the group over oneself—in accepting terrorism. In this case, collectivism is evinced by the youth’s willingness to sacrifice their ambitions, relationships, and lives (what generally constitute a personal identity) for the sake of religion or country.
Mental Manipulation and Fighting Islam’s Enemies
When asked to define what they meant by “mental manipulation,” the two respondents who chose these words explained: “Mental manipulation through religion. They convince you that joining al-Shabab is your religious duty and that is what Islam requires of someone in your position.” Framing it as manipulation indicates that these youth may never have fully believed that it was a religious duty to join al-Shabab. The firm opposition by those who chose to use “manipulation” also hints at the power of disillusionment and betrayal, since they have come to see it as manipulation after the fact.
It is especially distinct from the six who opted to use “fighting Islam’s enemies.” These six, albeit not al-Shabab supporters anymore, still think that Ethiopian and AMISOM forces are anti-Muslim—a testament to the power of al-Shabab’s ideological indoctrination.
Obtaining paradise as a reason for joining al-Shabab stems from the belief that al-Shabab was conducting valid jihad in defense of God’s religion. All schools within orthodox Islam, both Shi`a and Sunni, accept that paradise is a reward for those who die as martyrs. It is one of the surest paths that guarantee meeting God. The disagreements arise as to what exactly constitutes valid jihad. Thus, to convince a Muslim that paradise is waiting, al-Shabab must justify that one’s struggle is indeed valid jihad. In the case of these youth, who admitted to not being well versed in religion, the task was not particularly challenging.
The following explanations were given in response to how they found out about joining.
Encouraged by Family Members and Peers
In the words of one respondent: “My father bought me a gun and brought it home. He said that if he were me, young and healthy, he would be at the front line of the battle and not at home.” While al-Shabab targets marginalized youth and orphans, even those who do not fit in those categories are not immune from recruitment. The fact that close relatives encourage youth to join demonstrates that some in society see al-Shabab’s fight as “their fight.” It is not because society is radicalized and has fully embraced jihadist ideology and certainly not due to the debilitating poverty that has riddled Somalia for decades; rather, it is a fight to maintain their culture, language, religion and way of life—it is a fight to safeguard their identity and its important features from foreign “invaders” such as Ethiopia and AMISOM.
Encouraged by Religious Leaders
Religious leaders would deliver fiery sermons about jihad and urge the populace to join al-Shabab.
Encouraged by Businessmen Seeking Protection
Businessmen in Somalia benefit from security and order. Thus, they often support al-Shabab in areas where the group is dominant (and other groups elsewhere). These businessmen encourage youth to join al-Shabab to ensure ranks are well filled. This also functions as an alternative career for idle youth who would otherwise turn to petty crime and hooliganism.
Offered Guns and Money as Gifts
Some youth were enticed by money, especially those who were more impoverished than others in society. Others were attracted to the power and influence that al-Shabab affords to its members, as recruiters offered them guns for joining.
Reasons for Disengagement with Al-Shabab
There were multiple reasons why those interviewed decided to quit al-Shabab.
The three youth who listed this as one of the main reasons they left al-Shabab expressed that they had grown tired of fighting. They stated that the deteriorating environment in Somalia had become unbearable and that is why they fled to Kenya. Once again, the quality of life is germane to the decision making process of these youth.
Four youth provided this response. They explained that there were no opportunities to go to school in Somalia, and they wanted to further their education so as to be able to earn a good living for themselves and their families.
Only one youth mentioned this. Due to a severe injury, he left Somalia to receive treatment in Kenya.
These were listed by various youth. One youth phrased it as looking for “group identity” but explained that his relatives, who had fled to Kenya, persuaded him to join them and leave Somalia. Another respondent cited “clan coalitions” and explained that his clan had severed ties with al-Shabab, which forced him to quit the group. He also fled to Kenya where he could live among close relatives. Other respondents cited “advice from parents.” This was the most cited reason (6 out of 15). They explained that this had to do with either clan politics or prospects for a better life. Some also explained that their parents would try to get them to leave al-Shabab for Kenya, as they wanted their children out of danger.
This was the second most cited response. As was explained, this entails getting a chance to pursue a life free from violence and war outside Somalia. Many youth expressed frustration with the situation and claimed that when their parents or close relatives found a way for them to go to either South Africa or the West, they chose to leave Somalia.
Al-Shabab Became Powerless
One respondent mentioned this as a reason. According to him, the benefits that came with being an al-Shabab member disappeared with their defeat in his town, thus rendering it pointless to continue aligning with the group. This attests to the point that in many cases people switch sides due to convenience in Somalia. Experts have noted that in Somalia, Islamists have historically been flexible and have switched sides several times—which points to the lack of an ideological core in many Somalis who join al-Shabab.
Injustice and Inequality
Injustice was mentioned once while inequality came up twice. The youth explained that they came to realize that al-Shabab was oppressive. One participant explained that al-Shabab did not live by its professed belief of transcending clan politics. He saw that most youth from minority clans were given the most dangerous jobs and used as pawns while those from powerful clans were given leadership positions.
The argument presented—identity, as manipulated by ideology in the trappings of religion, coupled with perceptions of neglect plays a central role in driving Somali youth to al-Shabab—aims to give nuance to the understanding of radicalization that leads to violent extremism. In this case, this applies to Somali youth who have fled al-Shabab in Somalia. This argument should neither be mistaken for a version of “poverty causes terrorism” theory nor others that undermine the role of religious ideology. The main reasons these youth cite for joining al-Shabab are not deeply held religious beliefs, but rather factors that revolve around their sense of identity and perceptions of neglect that stem from their frustration with clan politics, lack of opportunities to improve the quality of their lives, and other difficulties that come with war. A testament to this is the fact that most of them gave up violent extremism when given the chance of a better life, especially when trusted relatives were the ones presenting such opportunities.
Although the youth interviewed are currently in Kenya, their motivation to both join and leave al-Shabab developed in Somalia. Their desire for “peace” or “education” had nothing to do with being in Kenya; these goals were merely suppressed or put on hold while fighting for al-Shabab. As their frustration with the situation in Somalia increased, it became harder to justify why they had delayed their ambitions for al-Shabab, and they finally put themselves first. In other words, the personal identity—and not the social and cultural—came to the forefront in their decision-making.
In the case of such youth, typical programs that merely address some of the push and pull factors will not suffice. The challenge is to develop programs centered on bolstering the personal identities of vulnerable youth while also addressing the relevant push and pull factors driving them into militancy.
Muhsin Hassan is a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He is a SINSI (Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative) fellow currently pursuing a Masters in Public Affairs at Princeton.
 As part of his undergraduate thesis, the author conducted these interviews as focus group discussions in Kenya on January 5, 2012. The dataset included 15 Somali youth, aged from 19 to 27. They came from different areas in Somalia, such as Mogadishu, Baidoa, and Kismayo, while others came from Dadaab and Ifo refugee camps in Kenya. All of the quotes and data in this article are drawn from these interviews.
 Although the author offers expanded definitions, this dichotomization of factors into push and pull was drawn from Guilain Denoeux and Lynn Carter, “Guide to the Drivers of Extremism,” Management Systems International, publication produced for USAID review. This terminology appears to have been borrowed from migration literature. They are used to categorize the various push and pull factors that either “push” one to move out of a bad neighborhood and “pull” them to a better one.
 Seth J. Schwartz et al., “Terrorism: An Identity Theory Perspective,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 32:6 (2009): pp. 552-553.
 This can be seen in the history of the Islamic courts. Each side of the conflict had a benefactor, and even today al-Shabab receives its funds from major businessmen with interests in Somalia.
 Roland Marchal, “The Rise of a Jihadi Movement in a Country at War: Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen in Somalia,” Center for Scientific Research at Sciences-Po., Paris, 2011, p. 12.